Update on the Tripoli 6

About a month and a half ago, I posted an update to the story of the plight of a group of medical professionals who have come to be known as the “Tripoli 6” or the “Benghazi 6.” These are six foreign medical workers who were falsely accused by Libyan authorities intentionally infecting over 400 children with HIV in a Libyan hospital and then unjustly imprisoned under horrific conditions, where they have remained for nearly eight years. Thanks to the need of the Libyan government to find scapegoats for unhygienic conditions in the hospital, leading to an ignorant bloodlust whipped up against them, the Tripoli 6 were ultimately sentenced to death by firing squad, despite allegations that the medics had been tortured while in a Libyan prison to extract “confessions” and scientific analyses that conclusively demonstrate that the strain of HIV with which the children were infected was in the hospital before the hospital workers arrived. Nonetheless, as Revere reports, their death sentences were confirmed by the Libyan Supreme Court yesterday.

When last I reported, a complicated dance of negotiations was occurring involving the Libyan government and Bulgaria and other European nations that would allow Libya somehow to release the workers and still save face, a desirable outcome because this case is greatly hindering Libya’s attempts to forge closer and more congenial relations with the West, while somehow allowing Bulgaria and other E.U. nations not to be seen as paying ransom. Of course, what the Libyan government is doing is nothing other than pure blackmail, demanding 10 million euros for each infected child’s family based on Islamic law, in which victims’ relatives can withdraw death sentences in return for reparations. The compromise being worked on seems to involve setting up some sort of international fund to help the families of the children with HIV with medical care. Oddly enough, the confirmation of the death sentences seems to be a necessary step in this process:

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld death sentences on six foreign medics for infecting Libyan children with HIV, a ruling that paves the way for moves by Muammar Gaddafi’s government to win their freedom.

Experts said the ruling completed the role of the judiciary in the highly-politicised trial of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, and Libya’s executive can now step in and seek to secure their release subject to a deal with the families of the children.

The case is expected to go to a government-controlled High Judicial Council which will have the power to commute the sentence or even pardon them.

As Revere puts it:

The case has become a cause célebre for the international scientific community, including, significantly, the scientific blogosphere. Affirming the death sentence is a (regrettably) necessary first step in resolving the issue and, paradoxically, saving the lives and obtaining the freedom of the accused, whose confessions they say were coerced by torture. A precondition for a positive outcome for the accused was an agreement between the EU and Libya’s Gaddafi Foundation charity on funding lifetime care for the children, an agreement said to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

If you want to know how a poor public understanding of science can lead to horrific results, the case of the Tripoli Six is about as good an example as there is. The Libyan government would almost certainly like this case to go away and to release the medics, because Gaddafi very much wants to improve relations with the West. Unfortunately, public opinion, if strong enough, can constrain the actions of even a dictator, and public sentiment in Libya wants blood, all based on superstition, a mistrust of outsiders, no understanding of science, and religious beliefs demanding “compensation” for a nonexistent crime.

I like to think that the blogosphere’s continued pressure had a role in bringing the negotiations to a point where the Six will (hopefully) soon be freed, even if it will apparently require giving in to extortion.